After six months, Martha put an advertisment in the paper for the flat.
She hoped right up until the morning she sent the email that John would decide to come home.
He came visiting now, instead. Sunday afternoons after she came back from church. Once, she’d stopped in to say hello to Manny in Speedy’s before she went back inside 221, and she spotted John through the window. He was across the road, wearing his green mac. His hands were clenched in fists at his sides, fingers tightening, rubbing against each other as if to get the circulation flowing. His back was straight, and his face was slightly upturned. She knew he was looking at nothing else but the shaded windows of the second floor flat. His face was tight, a frown pulling down on his brow, and even at her distance and with her not-as-young-as-they-used-to-be eyes, she could tell he was steeling himself to approach the familiar door, to touch the brass knocker, to stand however briefly in the hallway where he’d learned to laugh again.
When it came to Sherlock, they always asked after John.
They meant well. But no one asked after her except for John.
She was just the landlady, after all.
Sure, there were a few pushy journalist types that crowded the door for the week or so after it happened, shoving each other out of the way and shouting rude questions at her. Making an awful racket and blocking the entrance to the cafe. Manny had come out and started pushing them back with a broom so she could get through. But as quick as they descended, they were gone, and the pavement outside 221 was quiet again.
All they wanted to know was about the worst parts of him. That was no sympathy at all. That was rubbing salt in the wound. To think they felt entitled to any more information about him after the wretched things they’d wrote about him before!
She didn’t tell them a blessed thing, good or bad. They had no right.
She kept her memories of him hidden, tucked in close to her heart. She cried for days, soaking through more hankies than she cared to count. It felt like she’d lost a son. And though she’d complained about the noise before, it was nothing compared to the quiet – permeating the air, seeping stagnant from upstairs, and it only made it all the worse.
Martha was the one who braved the seventeen steps when John couldn’t bring himself to, who went so reluctantly through the door to the sitting room where she used to feel so welcome. She stood in the middle of the room, with all that quiet pushing up against her, and she cried. She cried because it was still a mess, still dusty; there was still food and tissue samples in the refrigerator. His clothes were still hanging in neatly in his wardrobe, each hanger a precise inch-and-a-half space apart. His drawers were still full of his underthings, his socks – so many socks! – nestled in perfect rows. She’d washed and folded and hung up almost every piece of his clothing one time or another, made sure everything was ready to go in case he got an important call.
When she couldn’t bear to look at it any longer, she got boxes and packed everything up. The books and papers, the frames with insects under glass, his beloved violin. She folded up his clothes for the last time and put them in plastic containers. She couldn’t bring herself to donate them. Most of them were custom tailored to his exact measurements, and it seemed almost a sin to have someone else try to squeeze into his shirts, or get their feet lost in the excess length of his trousers. She doubted there was another person on earth built like him. So she left them down in 221C, packed carefully away, protected from the damp. His shirts, his suits, his dressing gowns. His second-best pair of Oxfords. Every last pair of socks.
She left the science equipment for last, all jumbled together on the kitchen table. The next day, a teacher from the local secondary school would come and take it all away.
(Mycroft Holmes would show up on her doorstep the day after that, and say three words: The violin, please. He would wait, hovering on the threshold gripping the handle of his umbrella as she retrieved it and handed it to him. He would then look at her for a moment as the case changed hands, his soft face entirely blank. Then without another word, not even of thanks, he would turn and disappear into the back of a sleek black car. She wouldn’t see him again after that.)
She meant to box up the skull as well, but in the end, she wound up tucking it away on a shelf in her own sitting room, where she’d usually put it when Sherlock would shout too much at it.
When she was through, only the furniture remained.
And the spraypaint, and the bullet holes, and the scratches all over her table, and the knife marks on the mantle, and that strange sweet sort of chemical smell.
Those were the parts of him everyone knew. But there were parts of him only she was allowed to see – bits that she didn’t even think John had the chance to come to know. That was what hurt the most, what made the grief inside her turn to quiet anger. John was so ready to love him, and for Sherlock to just throw that all away by walking off the edge of –
It was all wrong. That wasn’t the way things were supposed to go. At times like that, she felt like the sadness inside her was bottomless, though it was likely akin to nothing compared to what John must be feeling. When she thought about that, the anger only welled up afresh.
It shouldn’t have happened that way at all.
When she’d met with Sherlock for the very first time, they were in Florida. He’d been wearing a grey linen suit with a crisp white shirt beneath it. Though it was hot, he would only deign to remove his jacket, and refused to even roll up his sleeves. (She didn’t know the real reason behind that until much later.) He was distant then, more ruthless and rude to everyone; the detective who escorted him in, the nurses on the ward, even the doctor who came in to check up on her. His eyes, hollowed by lack of sleep, only softened when they turned upon her. Her cuts and bruises, her splinted hip. It was almost unbearably embarrassing for her, to be seen like this.
“You’re ashamed,” he said, and he’d sounded almost surprised. She turned her face away, but he continued. “You mustn’t be. There’s nothing for you to feel shame over. He is the one who should be ashamed.”
“He doesn’t know how,” she said quietly. “They haven’t been able to find a thing on him. He’s as devious as he is smart. They don’t even believe me, and look at the state I’m in. ”
He leaned closer, and she only turned back to face him when she felt his big warm hand cover her soft, thin one.
“Mrs. Hudson, I am not them. I believe you, and I am as smart as I am thorough, which is extremely.”
“God, if only I’d have known sooner,” she said, making a fist with the hand that wasn’t held by him, “I just feel so stupid.”
“You aren’t stupid,” he said, and she knew even then it wasn’t something he said very often. “Don’t say that. I am sorry this happened to you. I will fix this, and then you’ll be able to go home again. Give me two days. Two days, and there will be nothing left in this world that you shall have to worry over anymore.”
She’d nodded, and he’d smiled a strange half-smile at her, as if he wasn’t used to smiling much.
She only realised years later that his promise of a worry-free life was a blatant lie, and that his own well-being was the reason it was broken, though he never meant it to be. But she couldn’t help it. If she was going to worry over anything, his life (and John’s) were the most deserving and important things.
Sherlock had looked quite different when he’d come to meet her back in London.
Still too thin, still abrupt and closed off, but he had life in his eyes. A hungry sort of longing. Like he was ready to find something he’d been searching for for a long while.
She ushered him into her kitchen, made tea, filled the table up with plates of biscuits and sandwiches and her special blackberry tarts, glad for once to have someone to share them with.
“I find myself in need of a new flat. The one upstairs, will you rent it to me?” Though it was meant as one, it didn’t even sound to her that it was a question. Not that he even needed to ask.
“Of course, dear,” she’d said. “After what you’ve done for me, it’s the least I could do.” She even promised to give him a bit of a break on the rent – truth be told, she just wanted to make sure he was all right. She could always tell when people were trying to act as if they weren’t nervous, even if she couldn’t tell what they were nervous about.
And it wouldn’t hurt to have a bit of company around. It had been a while since anyone had interest in 221B. Or at least, anyone who didn’t view her as the doddering old lady downstairs.
“Mrs. Hudson, you’re a saint,” he said, grabbing her hand in both of his and rubbing his big thumb fondly over the back of her thin wrist.
She smiled at him from across the table. “Now eat. You need a bit of pudge on you, if ever I saw.”
He showed up a day later with a van full of his belongings.
“What about a flatmate, dear?” she said as she watched him come in the wide-open door, balancing a tower of books in one arm and a cardboard box cradled in the other. “I thought you said you’d be needing one.”
“I did. I’ve just met him.” She grabbed a few of the books from him and followed him up the stairs.
“Did he even say yes?” she asked, raising her eyebrow at him. “He hasn’t even seen the flat yet.”
He merely gave her that little lopsided smile, but she could still see the uneasiness he was hiding behind his eyes.
“He will,” he said, all confidence, apparently meant as an answer to both of her concerns. “Now,” he said, holding out a duffel bag stuffed to the seams with socks, “If you could, sort these by material and pattern.”
And she did, though she wasn’t his housekeeper, because it was nice to finally feel useful again.
Two weeks after the ad, she got a call. A couple, wanting to look at the flat. She told them to come on Wednesday afternoon, and when she hung up, she gathered her cleaning supplies from underneath the sink and went upstairs for the first time in months to clean.
She dusted. She hoovered. She carefully cut a piece of wallpaper to match up and pasted it over the damaged place. She took the sheets from off the couch, chairs and beds.
Yet she couldn’t stop thinking of the back bedroom as Sherlock’s room, or the upstairs as John’s. It was silly, she thought. She’d had about four or five different people rent these rooms since she’d owned the building. But none of them ever took over, spread out, claimed this place as theirs so well and fully as her boys did.
They were polite, professional, young. Her hair was long and perfectly styled, her makeup impeccable, her clothes irrefutably posh. He carried a Prada briefcase and wore a silk Herm è s tie. They both worked in something having to do with finance, or some such thing.
They moved in the first of the next month. She smiled at them as they carried their boxes up the stairs to 221B.
She was charging them double what she charged the boys.
“Thought you might want a cuppa, after all that hard work,” she said as they came back down the stairs, peeking around her door. “You’re welcome to come sit awhile. I have some biscuits in the oven.”
“Thanks, but we’re really busy,” she said.
“Have to get this all sorted, you know,” he said.
“All right then. If you need anything just let me know.”
They gave her matching tight-lipped smiles.
She left them alone. When she saw them having tea and packaged biscuits sat on the steps a mere half-hour later, she never asked again.
It was a bit lonely, but she didn’t admit it. Then again, it had been for months. She should be getting used to it. Any day now.
John came around the next Sunday. She could see the sour look pinching his lips, telling of his distress before he even opened his mouth. She swore sometimes more than a bit of Sherlock got stuck on her.
“So, new tenants?” he asked, predictably, after they were settled at her tiny kitchen table, the biscuits he never ate between them.
“Yes,” she said.
“How are they?”
“They’re quiet,” she answered, and she saw him hear the meaning behind it. All the hidden words she still couldn’t say, felt she wasn’t allowed to say. Like Please come home, John, and I feel old for the first time since I left Florida, and I hate them for one reason only and that reason is because they aren’t you and him.
“Must be a nice change,” he said, and it sounded like God I wish I could, and I feel old too, and I’m glad you hate them because I hate them as well and I don’t even know them How dare they sleep in his room and eat in our kitchen and watch crap telly curled up in our chairs Don’t you dare not be their housekeeper.
“Got new ones then, Martha,” Marie Turner said when they went to their monthly book club meeting. “Haven’t heard a peep out of them. Much nicer than those two you had before.”
“Oh yes,” she said out loud, then to herself, One would think.
“I never in all my life thought two grown men could make such a commotion!” She patted on the arm of her friend Josephine to conduct her attention and started going off on her favourite rant. “The short one would shout up a storm about the washing up and the tall one would torture the violin at all hours. Hear it right through my walls!”
Martha stayed silent, digging through her handbag looking for nothing.
She tried not to remember the sweet sonatas Sherlock would play, one in particular he knew was her favourite though she never knew the name. He would stand at the head of the stairs and play so she could hear without leaving her own flat: his way of apologising for stains on the rug or ears in the crisper drawer. She tried not to remember John’s wheezy laughing reverberating down the hallway, his shouts as he came barrelling down the stairs: Mrs. Hudson, will you be my date to brunch? Of course she will! See, Sherlock? You’ll be here all alone if you don’t come with us!
She tried. That’s progress, isn’t it.
She left the meeting early that night, when she found herself bored out of her mind. She felt unable to absorb a single word more coming from Marie’s mouth either, and didn’t quite trust herself not to throw the book at her head.
“Do you have any children?” he asked.
Dinner at a lovely restaurant in Soho; French, her favourite. Max was a charming widower with a vintage Volvo P1800 and a friendly disposition. They met through a dating website targeted toward people her age. Fancy that.
“I had two sons,” she said, because she knew even before dessert that unfortunately this first date would also be their last. His car told her he was trying too hard, and his halitosis told her he wasn’t trying hard enough. It was at times like that she didn’t know whether she should thank Sherlock or curse his name. (Though of course she’d never really do that.)
“Had?” he asked, and she could tell he regretted the question as soon as it left his mouth.
“One died,” she said simply. “The other still visits me, but it’s not been the same since.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, bowing his head in embarrassment.
“As am I,” she replied, because it was not quite fair to him that the suggestion of her grief should colour the evening, on top of him not being anywhere near her type. “Never you mind, though. Tell me more about this automobile auction you attended,” she said, and suffered through an hour of somewhat impenetrable car-talk so as to soothe over the prior awkwardness and the later inevitable letdown.
“Mendelssohn’s Violin sonata in F major,” Martha recited to the black granite headstone. “Finally did a bit of detective work myself. That’s the one you always played for me, the one that sounded so happy, hopping here and there. They were playing it in a shop and I made a right bother of myself, made the clerk go and take the record out of the player to tell me what the name of it was. He must’ve thought I was mad as a box of cats.”
She bent down and plucked a weed from the base of the stone. The granite wasn’t as shiny as it used to be; it was dusted with pollen and splattered with mud where it met the ground. She took her hankie and wiped it across the chiseled gold letters. She couldn’t resist fondly thinking, Even here he makes a mess.
“I did that Google thing John taught me and found a website full of videos of people playing it. Doesn’t sound quite the same coming from the speakers, but if I let it play in the sitting room while I’m cleaning the kitchen, I can almost pretend that it’s you playing from upstairs.”
Something shifted in the stand of trees near the edge of the cemetery. Martha squinted toward it; the late afternoon sun threw dappled light through the branches of the pine tree that overhung his grave. Just a trick of the light, then. Perhaps the groundskeeper.
“John met a nice girl a few weeks ago. Her name is Mary, if I remember correctly. I told him when he came to visit last that I’d like if I could meet her soon. He looks happier than he has in a long time, Sherlock. I think she’s good for him. She must be. She makes him look more like he did when you two were dashing about. Maybe she took him on a date to a crime scene,” she chuckled, though the press of tears threatened her eyes again.
“That was a joke. I know they weren’t dates. You two weren’t like that.”
She brushed a few brown pine needles from the top of the stone.
“Though if you ask me, I think you could’ve been. I don’t know if you knew it, but he loved you very much. I don’t mean to be rude, but things like that tended to get lost in that big brain of yours.”
She sighed, slipped her hankie back into her handbag and snapped it shut.
“I think you loved him too. I wouldn’t have minded, you know. I thought you were lovers at the first. He just seemed to fit you. Anyone could see that.”
She walked back to the foot of the grave. She remembered when the grass was still sparse here, when she could still see the outline of the dirt they’d dug to place him in the ground. Now, the grass was a thick green carpet, blending seamlessly into the rest of the ground surrounding it.
“I think I’ll have dinner somewhere new today. Time goes on, have to keep up.”
She liked leaving with a cheerful word. It was silly, but it made her feel better.
“Love you, Sherlock. We still miss you, and we always will. But you wouldn’t want us to be boring, right?”
Strangely enough, it was that thought that made her smile enough to ignore the tight feeling in her throat.
have you ever had sushi before john? -mrs. h
i had it for the first time tonight. it is quite lovely. very not boring. -mrs. h
that reminds me. i would like to treat you and mary to dinner one night soon. it doesnt have to be sushi. -mrs. h
John didn’t answer her text messages. But that was all right. He was busy, with his new job and his new girlfriend. Like she said, time goes on.
When Martha got home, the tenants in 221B were having a row. But it wasn’t even about anything interesting, like No, you cannot subsist solely on bloody protein bars for two weeks straight, are you trying to ruin your gastrointestinal system on purpose? or Just put on the unitard – yes, it will fit you, I have eyes you know. It’s for a case, stop being difficult! They were arguing over whether he was spending too much time with his colleague after work hours. The answer was obviously yes. How could she not have noticed the smudges of makeup on his Burberry peacoat? Even Martha noticed them, and her eyes certainly weren’t what they used to be.
Oh, my. There I go again, she thought. But she only smiled.
When they passed in the hallway downstairs, they hardly said hello.
Evict them, for god’s sake.
The note was stuck up under the brass door-knocker, written in a spindly, uneven hand. It was freezing out, and beginning to rain even harder, but Martha just stood on the doorstep holding the little scrap in her gloved hand, staring at it.
Was this a joke? Was someone having her on? Maybe Marie, wanting to start another round of gossip.
But this wasn’t her handwriting.
She knew whose handwriting it looked like. But that couldn’t be.
When she felt the fat, cold drops of rain soaking her coat, she finally went inside.
She got out of her wet clothes and into her nice warm nightie. She made tea and heated up a bit of dinner. She sat down at the kitchen table in her quiet flat, cup and plate untouched, and stared at the little water-smudged note pinched in her pink-nailed fingers.
It even sounded like him. She could hear it in his voice, almost see the way he’d wrinkle up his nose, swing his head in an exasperated arc, those pretty curls falling all over his forehead.
She only needed one excuse. Then they’d be out in as little as a week.
She woke up the next day to a puddle of water in the middle of her carpet made by the steady dripping from the now-stained plaster of her sitting room ceiling.
The couple upstairs said they had no idea what had happened to the toilet or the kitchen sink. They shouted at each other and into their phones. But when the plumber came a few hours later (Mr. Harrigan, very nice, had worked on Martha’s old building for years), he said it looked as if they had clearly been deliberately tampered with.
“I’ll have to ask you to leave, I’m afraid,” she said sternly. “It’s in the contract you signed. And I’ll not stand for having tenants who are so disrespectful with my property.”
They didn’t argue, really, though they looked severely put out.
Martha did a very good job of hiding her smile until she got back downstairs to her own flat, if she could have said so herself.
That night, she came home from the market to find her carpet dry and freshly cleaned, and her ceiling re-plastered and painted.
She looked over at the skull, which she had wedged on her bookshelf between a commemorative Princess Diana decorative plate and a Lladró porcelain figurine of two girls winding flowers in each other’s hair that her sister had given her.
The skull looked back, feigning innocence.
“I don’t know if what I’m thinking is true, or whether I’ve just finally gone round the bend,” she told it, “But if the very first place he goes when he comes home for good isn’t straight to John, I’ll smack him my own self.”
The skull seemed to agree.
A few days later, her phone rang.
It was John.
Martha tried not to smile as she picked it up.
She also tried not to cry when she heard John’s shaking, hoarse voice on the other end. She didn’t succeed on either account. But John didn’t mind, and the skull wouldn’t tell.
She came home from church the next morning to the sound of Mendelssohn’s Violin sonata in F major being played from the top of the stairs.